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Racing Toward A Cure

Dr. Elisabeth McKeen has lengthened life expectancies of breast cancer patients through advanced gene tests that promise to diminish the number of deaths associated with the disease and, someday, lead to its cure.

On her day off, the beloved breast cancer doctor scurried up and down the hallways of the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, a tablet tucked under her arm, a cell phone clutched in her hand and nurses clawing for her attention in between visits with her patients.

Welcome to the world of the woman in the white coat.

Dr. Elisabeth McKeen planned to stay home to pack for a two-week vacation that began the next morning – a trip to Denver to see a 10-day-old granddaughter. It didn’t happen. Instead, the compassionate clinician capped another 60-plus-hour work week.

An out-of-the-ordinary oncologist who has pioneered the field of cancer genetics, the soft-spoken McKeen sat behind her desk, beaming about the breakthroughs in the business of medical research.

“In the ’70s, we knew that cancer ran in families, but genes weren’t identified until 20 years later,” she says. “Now, it’s exploded. Today, you can send out tumor tissue and have 400 genes checked. It’s an exciting time.”

McKeen’s vision as one of the founders of the Palm Beach Cancer Institute in Palm Beach Gardens – now the 170-physician-, 80-location-strong Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute – focuses on filing breast cancer in the same category as acute leukemia and testicular cancer: curable.

“Now that we can really do genetic testing, and insurance is covering it, we’re finding more and more families who have the gene,” the 63-year-old, whose local practice comprises 12 doctors and two nurse practitioners, says. “The goal is, by having the knowledge – that history – that you can diagnose the cancer.”

Today a wife, mother of two and grandmother of three, McKeen attended undergraduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

During commencement ceremonies from Albany Medical College, where the soon-to-be resident attended graduate school, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross gave a speech. The Swiss psychiatrist, whose book On Death and Dying led to the development of modern-day hospice care, had an impact on McKeen’s approach to bedside manner.

“My adviser in medical school said you can’t teach compassion,” McKeen says. “Obviously, taking care of cancer patients is sad. The compassion – I don’t know where I got it. I just wanted to be a good doctor.”

After completing her residency at Emory University’s School of Medicine in Atlanta, she entered a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in Washington, D.C., where she began her career in genetic testing. She and her family moved to South Florida in 1982.

“D.C. had gotten too big for me, and my husband wanted to live someplace that was warm,” McKeen, a much-sought-after lecturer who served as medical director of Hospice of Palm Beach County from 1984 to 1994, says.

Her list of awards, recognition and service includes U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler’s Local Legend of Medicine congressional award, past honorary chairwoman of the Susan G. Komen South Florida Race for the Cure and gubernatorial appointee to the state’s Breast Cancer Task Force.

“I always wanted to be an oncologist,” McKeen says. “Through genetic identification of cancer … so many people now are alive that wouldn’t have been alive.”